AS THE DEVIL DARES
In the final version of the book, Mariah and Robert's encounter in the garden is interrupted by his mother. The original version had Diana Morgan find them...and Diana was still in love with Robert. That whole subplot was removed. I'm glad it was, as it allowed Diana to get her own book and her own hero--Kit Carlisle, in book #6 of the series, AFTER THE SPY SEDUCES. Enjoy!
“Diana, wait!” Robert caught up to her just as she reached the ice-covered fountain in the center of the garden.
When she turned to face him, embarrassment darkened her face. For one moment, she simply stared at him through curious, wide eyes, as if she couldn’t quite believe what she’d witnessed. Then she murmured, “Oh, Robert…the Hellion?”
Christ. His shoulders slumped, and he rubbed at the headache forming at the back of his skull. Of all the scandalous assignations he’d enjoyed over the years in gardens throughout England, he’d never been caught before. Always careful, always discrete…until tonight. If he needed any proof that Mariah put him out of his right mind, this was it.
She slowly shook her head in disbelief and lowered her voice, although they were alone, “You were kissing her.”
He gritted his teeth in silent self-chastisement. If Diana hadn’t interrupted them, they would have done a helluva lot more than simply kissing. Yet he couldn’t find it within himself to regret a single moment.
“I was surprised to find you like that that,” she admitted, “but I’m not surprised that it was Miss Winslow. I realized that there was more between you two before you did, in fact.”
“Impossible,” he bit out. He didn’t know himself how deep his attraction to Mariah went until tonight. When he finally stood at the brink of letting another man claim her and didn’t like the feeling at all.
“Robert, the way you look at her…” A wistful smile curved her lips. “During all that time we spent together, you never once looked at me the way you look at her.”
“Like I want to throttle her?” he muttered, thanking God that the cold air had bitten through his evening clothes and completely cooled any outward signs of his desire for her. But it couldn’t hide his frustration as he raked his fingers through his hair.
“I don’t think that’s why you want your hands on her,” Diana countered, amusement dancing in her voice.
Clenching his jaw, he said nothing. There was no point in denying the truth.
“I have to admit that it made me a bit jealous to see the way you watched her every move tonight, how you fumed each time she danced with another man…” She looked away self-consciously at admitting that. The burst of laughter and music that drifted out to them from the party only reinforced the cold darkness of the night around them, and she pulled her wrap tighter around her. “The way she was able to frustrate and aggravate you so easily—you two were flirting with every cutting remark, each roll of your eyes, and every annoyed frown.” She grimaced regretfully. “You never once became frustrated over me.”
Fresh guilt washed over him. “Diana, I’m sorry if—”
She waved away his apology with a faint shake of her head and a smile. “We’re friends now. It’s what we should have been all along. And I’m glad of it.”
So was he. Although at that moment, he would have preferred a friend whose observation skills weren’t so sharp. And one who hadn’t just caught him behaving like a rake.
“But this pursuit of Miss Winslow—” She interrupted herself, then paused before boldly launching forward, “If you think you can win her approval as easily as you win in business, you’re wrong.”
Easily? He nearly laughed. She didn’t know Mariah very well if she thought that, nor had she seen the hell that minx had put him through during the past few weeks. “Trust me. There’s nothing easy—”
“Or by remaining distant and keeping your heart your own,” she added softly, the subtle warning silencing him. Her gaze softened sympathetically on him and tied a knot in his gut. “You can’t be guarded in matters of the heart.” She gently rested her hand on his forearm. “Does she know why this partnership means so much to you? Why no other company will do?”
“No.” And he had no intention of ever telling her that. Diana knew. He’d told her about his business plans at the end of last season, when it was clear that he needed her more as a friend than a wife. But as soon as he had, he regretted it. His troubles weren’t her burden to bear, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to bother anyone else with them. Or reveal his role in his father’s death.
“You need to tell her, Robert,” she urged softly. “Especially if…”
“If?” he prompted when her voice trailed off into the shadows.
She inhaled a deep breath, as if needing it to find her courage, and whispered, “If you’ve decided to marry her yourself.”
“I haven’t,” he shot back. Yet her words sparked through him with the force of a lightning bolt.
To even consider marrying Mariah was sheer madness. It would put an end to everything he’d worked so hard to achieve. Oh, he wanted her, and that desire had momentarily distracted him. But marriage…No. Henry Winslow would never let him have both his daughter and his company, and he wouldn’t—couldn’t—surrender this opportunity. Not when he had so much left to prove.
She slowly shook her head with disbelief. “Yet you were embracing her in the garden as if you’d already laid claim to her.”
He stiffened, reeling as if she’d punched him. God knew he’d done exactly that with Mariah, and not just tonight. But a few caresses in a dark garden certainly didn’t necessitate marriage.
“Tell her about the partnership, Robert.” She affectionately squeezed his arm. “She’ll understand, I’m certain of it.” Then she smiled. “Because I’ve also seen the way she looks at you.”
His heart stuttered. On the terrace, a group of partygoers burst into raucous laughter—a stark reminder of the ball they would all have to return to, then somehow act as if nothing had happened in the garden. He would have to continue to be Mariah’s escort tonight, pretending that he hadn’t just admitted to how much he desired her. As if Diana wasn’t right about his affections. As if Mariah didn’t hold them in her hand even now.
“I should go in,” she said quietly, letting her hand fall away. “I’ll tell Her Grace that you and Mariah weren’t out on the terrace.” An amused gleam sparked in her eyes. “Not entirely a lie. And one that will buy you both another ten minutes, I should think.”
“Thank you, Diana.” His chest swelled with gratitude. “For everything.”
“You’re a good man, Robert, and you deserve to be happy. So does she.” As she wrapped her arms around herself against the cold night and began to walk away, she arched a brow in sly warning. “Ten minutes.”
She walked on slowly to the house. He stayed where he was and watched until she safely reached the terrace and the light of the party spilling into the dark garden.
Then he turned to walk back to the willow tree. His thoughts roiled a mess of doubts and uncertainties that matched the jumble of emotions knotting tightly inside his chest. The affections he held for Mariah went beyond the merely physical, beyond simply being intrigued by her—it had become a longing to be with her, a yearning unlike any he’d felt for any other woman.
But this wasn’t any other woman. This was Mariah Winslow, the woman for whom he’d been charged with finding a husband. The daughter of the man whose business was the best company in the empire, the only one that would prove without a doubt that he had become the successful man his father wanted him to be. He couldn’t have both Mariah and the partnership. Winslow would never allow it, and Mariah would never forgive him for taking it away from her, even if he did.
Damned if he did, damned if he didn’t…Damn damn damn! And not a clue what to do about it. Except that he wanted Mariah in his arms, wanted to erase the confusion inside him with her kisses and soft touches, her kindness and comfort…wanted to discover if Diana were right, if Mariah really would understand what this opportunity truly meant to him.
He ducked beneath the branches and froze—
She was gone.